Vacuity of Intellectual Svaraj

In so far as one sees this article as a beginning of a certain type of enquiry, it is excellent. However, it is not adequate as a formulation of either the problem that confronts the Indian intellectuals (and not merely them) or the solutions. The problems are far more complex and the task is far more daunting than they appear at first sight.

1. What may not be forgotten, if one wants to be relevant and rational at all, is that we live in a world which has not merely included colonialisms but also our responses to them. Our generation is molded (mostly) by a colonial past that has basically been accessed only through its critique: whether nationalist, Marxist or Orientalist. Consequently, our questions, problems and misgivings are not those of a generation or two ago.

2. While true that our relation to our own intellectual traditions is ‘problematic’, it is not clear what the nature of this problem is. We have had any number of pundits (we still have them) well-versed in Sanskrit literature, linguistics and ‘philosophy’: but it has not really helped us go further, either as a nation or as a people, has it? We have our share of intelligent men and women who have had their feet both in the Western and the Indian culture; but we have hardly produced social theories of any merit and value, have we? We have had (and continue to have) more than our share of nationalist, Marxist and Orientalist ‘thinkers’, who reproduce the time-worn critiques of the Western culture; but it has not made a whit of a difference to our intellectual traditions, has it? Surely, if the problem was ‘merely’ one of how we are related (or ‘mediated’) to our cultural traditions, it would have been solved by any of the above groups. Not only have they failed; we are still in the dark about what bugs us about this state of affairs. A kind of ‘back to the roots’ movement is just as silly today as the routine of the brown saheb and his ‘butler-english’.

3. Neither D.D. Kosambi nor Romila Thapar was able to specify what our problems are; it is important to realize that neither Ronald Inden nor Partha Chatterjee do. How then could a Patanjali or the Buddha or a Shankara be relevant to us? It might help one in a vague way to discover that Patanjali had devised a meta-language or that we were well on our way to discover a predicate calculus some four thousand years before the west discovered it. How do such realizations help us today in finding out what we have to do? It may be a fancy thing in the USA (I live in Europe, so I do not really know) to speak of a Said or a Derrida or speak in the language of ‘post-colonial identity politics’. But please: this is how some Indians make a living in the USA, and it is even less relevant than what the Buddha said about ‘atman’ and ‘anatman’.

4. We reproduce both our bondage (to the West) and our obliviousness to that bondage, whenever we reproduce the so-called social ‘sciences'(of, say, a Weber) or their critiques (of, say, an Inden).

5. I do not want to put down Malhotra in any way. But what we need is not another ‘attempt’ to generate an ‘Indian Renaissance’. What we need to do, if I may put it in the form of a slogan, is ‘decolonize the social sciences’; but that is a task of an entirely different magnitude.

6. The first prerequisite to do this is to give up the complacent and smug belief (that many a Sulekha reader shares with many more) that we know and understand the western culture and that all we need is to understand ours better. We know very little about either the West or its culture. Let us try and describe the west as it appears to us, against the background of our culture, without reproducing the theories and descriptions of the western intellectuals. Very soon, we will discover that we know pretty little about this culture as well: and that our ignorance here is every bit profound and deep as is our ignorance of our own culture.

7. In a way, what amazes me both about the article of Malhotra and those of its readers is this: how easily they assume that they know or understand the Western culture! If there is a single, pernicious impact that colonialism has had upon us (and there are many), it is to make us believe that we ‘know’ the West. The truth is, we do not.

8. Only then could we relate fruitfully and productively to our own traditions. Until such an intellectual effort is made to understand the western culture, our attempts at addressing ourselves to the theme that Malhotra wants to talk about is a waste of time

Read the follow up, “Why study the Western culture?”

4 thoughts on “Vacuity of Intellectual Svaraj

  1. Pingback: Why study the Western culture? | All Roads Lead to Jerusalem!

  2. Rd

    There is a typo here, i think: “problems and misgivings are not those of a generation of two ago”!

  3. Pingback: Westology and its nonsense | All Roads Lead to Jerusalem!